By ERIC SUN
The 2015/16 season was an odd one for Manchester United. Finishing 5th with 66 points and missing out on the Champions League due to goal difference against 4th place rivals Manchester City was disappointing for many United fans including myself. Yet despite a season of mediocrity, there were nonetheless a few moments of excellence. One was the Reds’ 12th FA Cup trophy after a thrilling final against Crystal Palace. But that was a short term triumph, the long term takeaway from this season was undoubtedly the rise of then 18 year old sensation Marcus Rashford. With 14 players injured when United played Arsenal in February 2016, I did not tune into the game with much hope. But it was Rashford, on his Premier League debut, with 2 goals and an assist to win the game 3-2 that gave United supporters hope, hope that a new era of greatness could be on its way, driven by young talents like him.
As the years went by, Rashford became an established member of the United first team. His 81 goals so far since his professional debut proved to us that he was no one season wonder, that he could sustain his brilliance and become a superstar.
But 2020 showed us another side of him. Last year the now 23 year old English international showed us that he could be not just a superstar on the pitch, but also one off it. Whereas in 2016 he gave the Red Devils hope for a better future, in 2020 he gave the same hope to millions of poverty-stricken children in the UK. As of writing, Rashford’s petition on the Parliament website from October calling on the government to #endchildfoodpoverty had gathered 1.1m signatures; 11 times the amount required for it to be considered for parliamentary debate, 200,000 of these signatures coming on the first day. His multiple campaigns against child poverty have had real impact on government policy, too. His petition caused the government to rethink and promise to spend more than £400m to support poor children in England, which includes free school meals during the holidays. As a result, Prime Minister Boris Johnson now has frequent conversations with the Manchester United forward.
So how has this multi-millionaire footballer become one of the country’s most successful political campaigners?
Whilst nowadays Rashford is wealthy with his typical footballer wages, his early years were totally different. The polar opposite of what he is now, young Rashford grew up in a single parent family with his mother and four older siblings. His mother, Melanie, as a single parent, had to work multiple jobs to sustain the family. Yet even then, often Rashford had to rely on free school meals growing up. Occasionally he would make out to his mother that he was full when he was not, just so that she could allow herself to eat.
Having been brought up under these circumstances, it comes as no surprise then that the cause that the England striker campaigns for is one which he truly has passion for and could relate to. In a way, he is only helping millions of other child Rashfords so that they could have a chance at life like he did when he was given those free school meals, which eased financial pressure for the parents. Naturally, he opposed the government’s plans to not give children free meal vouchers and ultimately succeeded in getting the government to U-turn on its policy. His relatable upbringing along with his already huge United fan base gave him strong support to keep up his fight.
In a way, the success of the superstar’s actions off the pitch is a really personal but also inspirational story. It is a story of true and effective altruism of the successful in society to help its less well off, in a bid to help them get onto a more successful life path as well. As much as Rashford may deny that this is not about him, I would argue that it is exactly because this campaign is so personal and a reflection of his past that it has garnered so much support. Add to that his position in the present, the successor of the United No.10 shirt to all time club top scorer Wayne Rooney, it is no wonder that this tale of public figures, politics, passion and poverty would be a force for good in years overshadowed by so much bad like 2020 and 2021.
Of course, Rashford’s activism has by no means arrived at a conclusion yet, the recent images of the free school meals provided by the government shared on Twitter are proof of this, and the footballer has been speaking to Mr. Johnson to deal with this issue. Last year may be just the start of a stream of humanitarian success stories from him. As Manchester United currently sit at the top of the Premier League table, with a 21st league title potentially on its way, courtesy of a last minute winner against Wolves by none other than Marcus Rashford, it is further reminder that although he may already be a superstar both on and off the pitch, the best of his careers in football and activism are still to come.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Oleg Bkhambri (Voltmetro)